This is for the best for the Thunder. Melo, while diminished, is still a talented player who could be especially useful in an off the bench role. But he made it clear he wouldn’t accept that role in OKC, and as a starter, his ball stopping tendencies hurt the offense while his level of interest in defense went from “below sea level” to “Marianas Trench.” Jerami Grant was clearly outplaying him by the time the playoffs arrived.
Unfortunately for OKC, moving on from Melo isn’t as simple as shaking his hand and wishing him good luck- at least if they want to save money this year. Melo opted into the final year of his contract, leaving OKC on the hook for nearly $28 million dollars. And there isn’t any magical way to make that money go away. The pathway that saves the most money this season is “stretching” him- releasing him and paying out the $28 million over 3 years instead of 1. But that means they’ll have to pay the rest of his salary in 2019 and 2020, counting against the salary cap both years. Even without Melo, OKC will likely be over the luxury tax line next year- they stand to owe $125 million in salary already for the 2019-20 season, with the tax line standing at $132 million, and that accounts for just 7 players. Melo’s stretched salary will still count against the cap for those years, so OKC will end up paying luxury tax penalties for salary for a guy who hasn’t played for the Thunder for over a year if they decided to stretch him. Yikes!
They could also buy him out, in which case his salary will be completely gone next year, but they’ll still have to pay whatever amount Melo doesn’t give up this year. Realistically, he’s probably only giving up a few million dollars. With the luxury tax as punitive as it is, that turns into tens of millions of savings. But to be clear, neither a buyout nor a stretch makes Melo’s $28 million vanish without consequence, and both options leave OKC at the luxury tax line next season anyways.
The craziest option, and probably the best option for maximizing OKC’s shot at a title, is to trade Melo. Trading him could save OKC money this year while also help them round out the roster with talent they normally couldn’t acquire as a capped out team. Melo’s in the last year of his deal, meaning his horrible salary comes off the books for this year. Others teams may be interested in taking on Melo in exchange for OKC taking back guys on longer term deals, so the team in question can either chase free agents next summer when Melo’s deal expires, or just get some relief from the luxury tax. Melo, of course, has a no-trade clause and could veto any such deal, but in this scenario we’ll assume the team acquiring him is willing to immediately buy him out, leaving him free to head to the team of his choice, in which case he hopefully accepts.
This strategy results in more luxury tax payments, obviously. OKC will take back somewhere around $22 million in salary, which saves them $6 million in salary (and thus over $20 million in luxury tax bills) this year, but it also commits them to that salary for years going forward. The upside is it brings in talent - guys who can fill valuable roles around the core of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams. Finding real contributors will be difficult for OKC in the future. Remember, they’ll be over the salary cap, and very nearly over the luxury tax line, even without Melo, leaving OKC with only the tiny taxpayer mid-level exception- about $5 million a year- to offer free agents. Trading Melo could bring them two guys who are more in the $10-$12 million salary range. Salary isn’t perfectly correlated to talent (hello Timofey Mozgov and Bismack Biyombo!), but there are guys OKC could get this way who are way better than they could otherwise.
This sort of deal only happens if OKC’s ownership is willing to make pretty sizeable luxury tax payments not just this year, but for the next 2 to 3 as well. I have no idea if they are- they’ve certainly been willing to pony up so far this year, having learned from the James Harden debacle. But if they’re not willing to eat the luxury tax payments long term, then Melo will get bought out or stretched, and OKC will have to make do with what they have as they try to win a ring in the three year window PG has afforded them.
For argument’s sake, say ownership is willing to pay those luxury tax bills in exchange for getting some more talent around the Big 3. In that case, OKC has a couple options.
For a team to want to make such a deal, they have to a) have overpaid role players they want to get rid of b) not believe themselves to be title contenders this year. It helps if they think they can land a big free agent with the cap space they create next summer. There aren’t many teams who fit the bill but...
One that does is the Miami Heat. Colin Connors at Hot Hot Hoops pitched this idea a few days ago (though in his version Melo plays for Miami rather than wanting a buyout) and the idea has really grown on me. Essentially, OKC flips Melo for two of: Dion Waiters (!!), Kelly Olynyk or James Johnson. Those guys all make way less than Melo, but have several more years left on their deals. Getting rid of two of those guys frees up somewhere between $22 million and $25 million in cap space for the summer of 2019. That doesn’t get Miami all the way to max space, but it gets them close enough that dumping one more of those guys somewhere else gets them there. The treadmill of mediocrity doesn’t suit Miami- they need to get back to their star chasing ways. They could also go into stealth tank mode by getting rid of two of their key rotation players, try to get a good draft pick this year, then bounce back to being a playoff team by 2021, when they owe their first round pick unprotected to Philadelphia (who got it from Phoenix, who got it from Miami in the Goran Dragic trade).
Is the trade worth it from OKC’s perspective? In terms of on-court fit, Olynyk works; he can play power forward and some backup center, he splashes 3 pointers (38% last season, 37% for his career), he’s a better defender than Melo (he’s not great, but an improvement), and he can start or come off the bench. He’s not a great rebounder, but playing next to Steven Adams helps with that. Olynyk fills a position of need and will bring a much needed level of floor spacing to OKC.
Waiters and Johnson are more of a question mark. Dion already had one stint in OKC, during which he never quite gelled with Russ and Kevin Durant. He’s been revitalized in Miami, but that’s also with the ball in his hands more. That won’t happen as a starter next to Russ and PG, but as a sixth man he could give OKC’s bench some firepower. Ray Felton and Dion leading the bench as the obloid brothers would be fun to see. Johnson meanwhile seems like a Sam Presti fantasy- long, athletic, defensively minded, and...bad at shooting 3’s. OKC already has Andre Roberson and Jerami Grant though, and at a certain point there’s diminishing returns to guys who can’t shoot. My preference would be for Olynyk and Dion. We’re going back to Waiters Island, baby!!
And before anyone asks, no, OKC should not take Tyler Johnson’s contract.
You could conceive of a deal around Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lamb, but Charlotte seems hell bent on avoiding the Luxury Tax above all else, and this deal would bring them perilously close to that. Depending how much salary gives up in a buyout, they could squeeze under it, but they also may have dreams of getting back into the playoffs this year- possible, given how weak the East figures to be outside the top 3 teams. The salary Charlotte probably wants to get off most is Nic Batum, but OKC should want to avoid that deal. If Waiters or Olynyk don’t work out, OKC could probably move them relatively easily. Batum, at $24 million a year, would be near impossible to dump.
Looking at Charlotte’s roster and contracts depresses me. Let’s move on.
I don’t know what Cleveland wants to do next year as they face their post-LeBron future (again). There’s been rumblings that Dan Gilbert wants to stick it to LeBron by getting back to the playoffs without him this year. Personally, I think LeBron will be pretty unbothered if the Cavaliers somehow squeak to the 8th seed and get promptly stomped by the Celtics or Sixers in the first round. Besides, it’s a short-sighted strategy; the Cavs should be looking to maximize playtime for their youngsters, namely Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman (Sexy and Cedi, I’m hoping we call them), while also trying to have one of the ten worst records in the NBA so they can keep the draft pick they owe the Hawks if it falls outside the top 10. Plus, they can get off some long term money with such a trade.
The player OKC would no doubt love to get is Kevin Love - a floor spacer at the power forward spot and a guy who can be the fulcrum of a hybrid bench unit. Love would also combine with Steven Adams to be probably the best rebounding duo in the NBA, not to mention some of the best dual beard action west of the Mississippi. And of course, he and Russ were UCLA teammates back in the day.
Melo is in there to make the salary work in such a deal, but OKC would need to give real assets to get Love. The best they can do is Terrance Ferguson, their 2022 first round draft pick (that’s the earliest OKC can offer a pick because they owe their 2020 pick to Philly), and a collection of second rounds picks. The 2022 pick could be a good asset- OKC might be bad by then if things go south- but that’s a long way off, and if the Cavs hold an auction for Love, they can probably find a better deal somewhere.
The other Melo trade would be to take back some combination of George Hill, J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver- the Cavs motley collection of guards. Hill, Smith and Clarkson are overpaid, but Korver is on a nice deal. Korver is an elite shooter, Hill is competent at everything yet good at nothing, Smith is the streakiest of streaky shooters, and Jordan Clarkson is...Jordan Clarkson. The Cavs probably want to get off of Clarkson the most- they can cut Hill and Smith after this season and only have to pay a small amount of their 2019-2020 salary, while Clarkson gets his money either way.
Korver is probably the most valuable player - a superior (albeit much older) version of Alex Abrines - who can give more floor spacing to OKC. Hill and Smith would be next, but their contract situation means the Cavs don’t gain anything in terms of cap relief by swapping them for Melo; instead they’ll want OKC to give up assets. Is OKC willing to give up some protected version of the 2022 pick in such a deal? Do the Cavs want it? Is a second rounder enough to get it done? Hill and Korver can help OKC in real ways next year, while Clarkson should be avoided at all costs. If the Cavs lean in to a tank, there may be a deal to be made here. Hill and Korver aren’t perfect fits, but they both add badly needed floor spacing to OKC. The question is how much of the future OKC is willing to mortgage to round out the rotation.
- The Hawks have cap space and might agree to a Kent Bazemore - Melo swap. Bazemore is overpaid, but he can hit 3’s and he defends credibly- the kind of wing help OKC needs. But the Hawks would probably want some asset back, and the might prefer to keep Bazemore around to have at least some talent around their young core, even as they will probably be bad again next year. They’re in no hurry to free up cap space anyways.
- Ditto the Magic and Evan Fournier.
- Out west, it seems literally every team is trying to make the playoffs this year. Perhaps that changes halfway through the season and Sam Presti could find a deal then, but it seems like the Thunder want to resolve the Melo situation before the season starts
Realistically, Cleveland and Miami are the two teams the Thunder could do a deal with. The likes of Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters or George Hill and Kyle Korver might not seem like a big deal at first, but OKC’s cap situation going forward means this is their last chance to add any big money talent around their Big 3- after this, it’s all small deals for guys who will be at the back end of the rotation. If ownership is willing to pony up, Presti could find real value here, depending what kind of future assets he attaches to Melo. Especially since he’s Sam Presti- he may find a way to turn Melo into something far greater than anything that seems obvious now, just as he pulled the Paul George trade out of nowhere last year.
Which trade do you think Presti will pursue?
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